I always smile when I think about a moment, many years ago, as I walked into Shabbat morning services in my congregation back in New York. Two young non-Jewish guests ahead of me were conferring about the service. One asked, 'How long do these services last?'
The other responded, 'Let's see now. Reform services take one and a half hours; Conservative services, three hours; and Orthodox services take four or five. This is a Reform temple, so'.'
I had never before thought of service length as the defining characteristic of our movements, but so it seemed to one observer.
Seattle is one of a number of cities in the country where you can seek out an Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, secular or Progressive community. Each local synagogue affiliated with one of these movements or denominations is connected to a network of synagogues throughout the country and world. I have long been fascinated by the existence of these various denominations, but have also wondered if it makes sense to continue using these historically based labels to categorize types of Jews.
Although there are generalizations that ring true for each denomination, there is lots of anecdotal evidence that affiliated Jews often don't fit those generalizations. Increasing numbers of Reform Jews in our time keep kosher, observe Shabbat and study Torah on a regular basis. Many who affiliate with Conservative congregations and some who affiliate with Orthodox shuls make personal choices in regard to which mitzvot they do or do not fulfill.
They might drive on Shabbat, eat non-kosher food outside their homes, or be infrequent service attenders. Synagogue worship styles are also more fluid in our time. Guests at our synagogue continually comment on the amount of Hebrew, participatory singing and traditional liturgy in our services. Even so, liturgical service style ' and length! ' continue to be the easiest ways to distinguish one denomination from another. Individual Jews and their Jewish practices outside of shul, however, are less easy to identify as obviously belonging to one denomination or another.
Ultimately, I am of two minds on the topic of denominational importance. On the one hand, it is simply less important whether a person is one denomination of Jew or another than that the Jew is a Jew. All denominations share in common an emphasis on Torah, on understanding what it is God wants from us, and on endeavoring 'to do justice, to love goodness and walk humbly with God.'
Every time visitors come to 'check out' my synagogue, I tell them, 'we are so glad to have you here. If this would be the right community for you, we would love to have you join us. If you spend some time at this synagogue and it isn't right for you, please come talk to me and I will help you find one that is a better fit for you.'
Do I want or need every Jew to belong to my synagogue or to be a Reform Jew? Absolutely not. It is far more important that a person or family join a synagogue where they will desire to fully participate. We have nearly 600 children in our religious education program. Some of them will grow up and become Orthodox or Reconstructionist, Conservative or Reform, or some other type of Jew. As long as they are engaged Jews, I support their choices.
So, on one hand, synagogue denominations are not nearly as important as simply being a dedicated Jew. On the other hand, I was struck by a question I heard recently. A congregant asked, 'do you think that Reform Judaism can ensure the survival of the Jewish people?'
I pondered that question for a while and realized in the end that there exists no single denomination that alone can ensure the survival of the Jewish people. If one existed, everyone would gravitate to it. Instead, each of our denominations contains not only families who have affiliated with that denomination for generations, but also people who intentionally left one denomination of Judaism and found a home in another. Each movement offers something particular that is lacking in all the others. Seattle's own rich diversity of synagogues makes the case that we are stronger as a whole Jewish people when we offer a variety of paths toward Jewish connection.
To the large majority of unaffiliated Jews in the state of Washington, I can only encourage you to check out all the options and choose one. When you find the right community for yourself, not only will it become a source of strength for you, but your active engagement will strengthen it and will strengthen us all.